- Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATLANTA -- Falcons coach Mike Smith said he needed a spark in the return game. It didn’t happen against Tampa Bay.
The coaches decided to put rookie Robert Alford back on punt returns in Week 7 in place of Harry Douglas, who moved into the No. 1 receiver role with Julio Jones and Roddy White out. Alford fumbled away the only punt he had an opportunity to return.
The mistake, of course, didn’t sit well with Smith, who previously watched Douglas cough up a punt he shouldn’t have fielded in Week 3 at Miami.
Smith was asked about how the latest fumble might determine Alford’s status on punt returns moving forward.
"I think every play in a football game affects another play, and we have to make decisions that we feel like are best for our football team,’’ Smith said. "We have confidence in Robert Alford. But we’ve got to make decisions based on what we think [is] best for us moving forward. Those are decisions that will definitely be made before the week is out. But we’re going to make sure that we put ourselves in the best situation possible.
"We have now put two balls on the ground in punting situations, which is totally unacceptable. Basically, you lose a possession. And both times, it’s happened inside the 25-yard line. So we’ve got to make sure we’re doing what’s right for our football team and put a guy out there that is going to be able to handle those situations.’’
Translation: There could be another change at punt returner this week.
Douglas didn’t seem like he wanted to give up returns to begin with, but it probably wouldn't be wise to put him back out there and jeopardize his health. Special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong expressed full confidence in Alford last week and praised Alford for his speed, vision and athleticism. Maybe sticking with him would build the rookie's confidence.
At least Alford didn’t come up with any extravagant explanation for his blunder.
"I caught it, tried to make a guy miss and then I had the ball a little too loose," Alford admitted. "I should have had it closer to my body. On my way down, a guy flew in and just punched it out. Everything was my fault. I went back to the sideline and told Coach I’ve got to be more careful with the ball.’’
Dominique Franks, with 21 returns for 163 yards, was the team’s primary punt returner last season, so maybe he’ll get another shot. Robert McClain has fielded some punts in practice, so he could be an option as well. McClain scored a touchdown off a punt return back in college at Connecticut.